Categories: Reflections and opinions

Regular demo chef and food writer Roopa Gulati reflects on the food and traditions of north India’s winter harvest festival

Words: Roopa Gulati

Somewhere out there, whether in a hamlet, on the wide plains, a city allotment or home kitchen, there’s a harvest being celebrated. Perhaps it’s the reward for reaping enough crops to sustain local communities—our wellbeing depends on nature’s generosity, and every successful harvest shares the sentiment of thanksgiving.

Lohri, celebrated across northern India on 13th January, marks the beginning of the winter harvest. It’s a time to offer gratitude for crops, such as wheat and sugar cane, and to look forward to warmer days ahead.

Bonfires are lit when the sun goes down, and families and friends gather around it offering sesame seed sweetmeats, jaggery-based confectionary, puffed rice, peanuts and popcorn to the flames. It’s a symbolic gesture that pays tribute to Agni, the god of fire, and is celebrated across India in different incarnations, each region embellishing tradition with local folklore.

Winter-warming dinner
In Delhi, we took turns with our neighbours to host the annual bonfire and winter-warming dinner. We’d drink rum and enjoy seasonal Punjabi staples: basmati rice cooked with jaggery and sesame seeds, crunchy white radish wedges speckled with black salt and slow-cooked, gingery mustard greens mopped up with buttery cornmeal breads.

With warmed spirits, a dolak (drum) would be brought out. Lohri is not a restrained festival! Expect plenty of bhangra beats, dancing—and of course simple, home-cooked food. It’s all valuable insulation against the chill of winter, where temperatures often hover around freezing point. Lohri may lack the sparkle of Diwali, the riotous colours of Holi, but it’s one of the few agricultural festivals that generates as much enthusiasm in cities as it does in far flung villages.

After close to two decades living in New Delhi, I now call London’s suburbia home and enjoy harvest festivals of a different order. Sadly, we haven’t managed to replicate the Lohri magic in our back garden. Gloomy rain does not lend itself to bhangra dancing, bonfires, and butter-laden Punjabi dishes. I do, however, pay homage to the festival in my own quiet way—even if the only fire I see that day is the one on my gas hob.

Read Roopa’s festive recipe for carrot halwa